The Etymology of 气 “qì”

In JeeLoo Liu’s (2006) book titled An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, from Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism, we came upon the following passage:

Another important notion in Chinese cosmology is that of qi, in relation to which Dao should also be understood, since Dao is often seen as the rhythm or pattern of the movement of qi. There is no adequate English translation for qi, although it has been rendered variously as “energy”, “vital energy”, “pure energy”, “force”, “material force”, “spirit”, “vapor”, “air”, etc. Many commentators have pointed out the etymological root of the word “qi“. Originally, it referred to the steam or vapor coming from boiling rice (the Chinese character for qi contains the character for rice as a component). It came to represent the nourishing vapor or the moistening mist, both of which encompass the atmosphere, furnishing the bodies of all creatures and becoming the source of life. (p6)

At first sight, the etymological theory that Liu gave here is a little funny, and kind of naive too. Then I read some review on line that pointed out the same problem. The reviewer made two points: (1) the original form of the character does not have the rice component; (2) rice cultivation was not common in ancient China.

Indeed, this reviewer’s remark seems to make more sense. But we need more concrete evidence to favor either theory. So let’s examine the origin of the character first to see whether the original form has the rice component or not.

Currently, the simplified form is 气, which does not contain the rice component. The traditional form is 氣, which contains the rice component 米. In 《說文解字》(the Shuowen Jiezi, an early character dictionary, ca. 2nd century), both characters are found.

N0. 224 under radical气

气: 雲气也。象形。凡气之屬皆从气。

(qì:”vapor of clouds” (Schwartz 1985: 180),  light, thin cloud, pictograph. characters that denote this kind of meaning all have this radical)

No. 4483 under radical 米

氣: 饋客芻米也。从米气聲。《春秋傳》曰:“齊人來氣諸矦。”
(xì/qì: give grass/fodder and rice to guests/associates. 米 is its meaning category, 气 is its sound.  The Spring and Autumn Annals says “People from the Qi state came to give fodder and rice to the noblemen”

Thus according to the “Shuowen Jiezi“, both characters existed, the one without rice radical is a pictograph resembling the shape of light thin clouds in the air; the one with the rice radical belongs to the “rice” meaning category, and it means something like “to offer rice to”. It is a verb, as can be seen from the quote from The Spring and Autumn Annals, where it takes an object noun.

Here as a slight digression from the topic, I want to mention that many simplified characters are actually an older form of the traditional character. 气  might be such an example. The simplified character revived an older form, although in traditional character it is 氣 that is most often used. Another example would be 云. The original form for the character that means “clouds” is 云, but normally the traditional character is written with a “rain” radical on top, which is 雲, while 云 was borrowed to mean the homophonous word “to say” in traditional characters. Since many people who do not have extensive knowledge of the simplification of characters throughout history would assume that the simplified characters used today were mostly newly invented, they probably would not even consider 气 when they are trying to figure out the etymology of the concept of qi.

Ok, now let’s come back to our central topic and look at the explanation from the influential Kangxi Zidian 康熙字典. Both characters are mentioned there too. It says that the character without the rice radical means either light thin cloud or “to give, to offer, to ask for” as a verb. The character with the rice radical means both the air and light clouds in nature and the nourishing power and inner spirit in human beings. One interesing thing is that the Kangxi Zidian mentions one view that says:

气 is replaced commonly by 氣, which means “the inner essence that a being get from nature”, but if  you want to refer to light clouds, 气 should be used.(《六书正伪》气俗用氣乃禀氣之氣,云气必用气。)

This view is then refuted, because “the of the sky, earth, people and things are different, but the meanings of 气 and 氣 are actually the same. “(“按天地人物之氣虽别而气氣字义实同。”)

So far we can infer the following:

  1. Both characters existed in Ancient Chinese. The one without the rice radical originally refers to light thin clouds, i.e. the qi  in nature; the one with the rice radical originals refers to some type of “rice” received as pay or benefits. It is reasonable to say that by extension 氣 can be used to refer to the qi in human beings.
  2. But later only the one with the rice radical was commonly used to refer to the concept of qi , while the one without the rice radical were only used occasionally.
  3. In most records, i.e. printed copies of classical works,  it is 氣 that is used to represent the concept of qi.

So now the remaing question is which character was actually used first to refer to the concept of qi. My hypothesis is that the one without the rice radical was originally used to refer to the concept of qi. Later the concept was extended to the inner essence of being, or spirit. Then the nourishing power of food was considered essential for vital energy. Thus by extension the abstract concept of qi became more concrete, more relevant to daily life, and thus easier to understand. At this point the focus of the concept of qi began to shift from the laws of nature to the laws of nourishing the body. Thus the character with the rice radical was used to stand for this general concept, while the original character without the rice radical fell into disuse.

That the original concept was represented by the character without the rice radical is also supported by a story about Fu Xi who created the arrangment of the trigrams based on observations of natural phenomena in the sky and on earth. The 八卦 is an important concept of the I Ching and Daoism, as is the concept of qi. Thus it is reasonable to say that the concept of qi and the Daoist philosophy had a naturalistic origin. The origin of the concept of qi should be related to some natural phenomenon as well.

Indeed, in Liu’s book, she did mention two different theories of the etymology of qi. There is actually an endnote associated with the quote from Liu (2006) at the beginning of this article. The endnote says “See, for example, Schwartz 1985: 180, and Van Norden 2002: 26”. So let’s see what Schwartz 1985: 180 says. Here are the relevant passages from Schwarts (1985) “The World of Thought in Ancient China“:

“The effort to find the original graph in the oracle bones and bronze inscription has so far proven fruitless. Instead, what we find is an effort to reconstruct the origins of the term by tracing back from later usages.”

From this quote, we can see that indeed it is hard to know which character is the original character that was used to represent the concept of qi. This is also why there is this problem of the exact origin of the meaning of qi.

“the Shuo-wen of Hsü Shen speaks of the “vapor of clouds,” and Akatsuka has suggested that clouds winds do, of course, point to the formless powers of the universe.”

This passage states the naturalistic origin of the meaning of the concept of qi, which I have also been trying to support with concrete evidence throughout this article.

“Another gloss of the graph (also supported by the Shuo-wen) emphasizes its rice (mi) component. According to this view, the graph represents the nourishing vapors of boiling rice or grain. These vapors represent the nourishing powers of food that maintain life and human energy. The image of food even suggests the interchange of energy and substance between humans and their surrounding environment. This interpretation would emphasize the association of ch’i with human life.”

This is the part that Liu (2006) refers to. Interestingly, Schwartz refers us to another author here with an endnote. The source of this theory is Onozawa’s (1981, ed.) Ki no shisoo (“thoughts of qi”), p34. Since he was the editor of this volume, we probably can’t say whether we can ascribe this theory to him or someone else in the volume. But now we know why Liu (2006) sides with this theory.

“All of this seems to suggest that here we finally may have the closest Chinese approximation of the Western concept of “matter.” I must, of course, immediately point out that in most of the cultures where the wind-air-breath association arises, it does not necessarily lead to the notion of it as the primordial stuff out of which “everything is made,” nor is there any evidence that it did so in early China.”

Here in this quote, the important thing is that Schwartz mentions the “wind-air-breath” association in different cultures. Apparently he probably leans more towards a naturalistic origin of the concept of qi as well. He only cites the “rice” theory as an alternative theory.

Also I want to add that the second theory seems to say that the origin of the concept of qi is related to the vapor of cooking rice. This is actually not supported by the meaning of 氣. As we have shown from the Shuowen Jiezi and the Kangxi Zidian, the etymology of 氣 is only related to the “rice” that governmennt officials received as pay or benefits, or as the inner essence of beings. Thus the vivid image of “vapor rising from boiling rice” has never been part of the image associated with the meaning of 氣. To say that the vapor of cooking rice is the origin of the concept of qi is probably not credible.

So far it seems that we can draw the following conclusions as to the etymology of qi:

The original character for the concept of qi is most likely 气, which corresponds to the naturalistic origin of the concept. Later this concept was popularized and generalized and 氣 became the standard graph for this concept, thus concealing the true origin of the concept.

Now we have one remaining question: was rice cultivation popular enough at the time of the creation of the concept of qi? At least the character for “rice” can be found in the Oracle Bone Script, e.g. as shown on the left. So even if rice was not widely cultivated in the north of Ancient China, it could still be one of the staple foods in northern Ancient China. In the Zhou Dynasty, the noblemen received rice as their benefits from the king. So whether rice was popular in northern Ancient China does not matter to our current discussion, unless someone can show that there was no rice cultivation at all at the time of the creation of the concept of qi in the northern part of Ancient China.

So all in all, it is most likely that the naturalistic theory of the origin of the concept of qi is correct, while the “rice” origin of the concept might still be popular among various readers since it is probably more relevant to their own understanding of the concept of qi as the vital energy of life.


PS: Regarding the cultivation of rice versus millet in Ancient China, I think I have a different view now. It seems to me that the original Sinitic culture was characterized by the cultivation of millet, and the importance of the millet has been recorded in ancient texts as well. There is archaeological evidence for the cultivation of millet in the Yang-Shao Culture (8500BP) in the north. In ancient southern China, especially in the Hemudu Culture (7000BP), it was the cultivation of rice that was more salient. Therefore if the concept of qi is an ancient Sinitic concept, it is more reasonable to argue that the cultivation of rice that was learned from non-Sinitic cultures would not have had any significant role in forming such a fundamental concept.


  1. Pingback: “Three Windows” in Action: Rice and Langugage « Language and Meaning

  2. A

    Please, let’s distinguish between lexical etymology and character etymology. They take different paths.

    There is a couple of later character (e.g. 餼) that were invented to write the lexeme 氣 (grain offering), after 氣 came to be used to write both Qi (essence) and 气 (vapor). 餼 and 气 have slightly different initials, implying that 氣 (grain offering) and 气 (vapor) also had slightly different initials. Qi (essence) as a lexeme probably derives from 气 (vapor) — that make more sense. The only mystery is why it was written by 氣 (grain offering) when its sound is more like that of 气 (vapor).

    Well, 康熙字典 offers a pretty good explanation on this:


    So Qi (essence) may have originally been written as 火+气, and so it is easy to see how it could have been mistakenly or out of convenience standardized to 氣, a character that meant something else and had a slightly different pronunciation, but which by that time was probably archaic and in disuse. That also explains why 氣 became the written form for 气 (vapor) as well, once it took over the meaning of Qi (essence), i.e. 火+气.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *